Al Alvarez' book, The Biggest Game in Town, published in 1983, has been a major influence in my freelance writing career. One reviewer called it "the origin of contemporary poker literature."
After I read Al’s book, I no longer wanted to, I had to – I absolutely had to, I had no other choice, my life would not be complete - unless I also wrote about poker.
|Photo by Carl Brown
It was a privilege for me to meet and interview Al Alvarez at his home in Hampstead, near London, in February, 2006. I wrote an article about Al for Poker News, "Al Alvarez: The Poet Laureate of Poker," which appeared in March of 2006. Al also put me in touch with Anthony Holden, a dear friend of his who wrote the books, Big Deal and Bigger Deal. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony and wrote an article about him, also for Poker News: "A Bigger Deal is on the Way." I now visit Al and his wife, Anne, on my 2X per year trips to London.
Al's good friend, fellow author David Cornwell, aka John le Carre, says of Al: "He is the most chivalrous and best-mannered man you or I are likely to meet." He adds, "You never part from Al without feeling a couple of degrees jollier." True, true, true.
My interest, like Al's , is in the culture of poker. While I find the game interesting, I find the people who play it, fascinating. Katy Lederer (Poker Face) refers to the head and the heart of poker. Alvarez wrote about the heart of the game. This is what I wanted to do, too.
The Biggest Game motivated me to wrangle a media pass to the 1983 World Series of Poker (WSOP) at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas.
With knees knocking, I approached the great Doyle Brunson – two time WSOP winner prominently mentioned in Al’s book - and asked for an interview.
“What publication are you with?” he asked.
I said that I was a freelancer, didn’t have an assignment, had no articles published in this field, and had no assurance that anyone would be interested in what I wrote. In other words, I hadn't a clue about what I was doing.
Brunson laughed and said, "Sure, let's talk."
Doyle was kind, patient, and generous with his time. How many rookie journalists get their first interview with one of the world’s best players? With one of the nicest persons in the field?
As a result of this interview, I got my first hit in the area of poker. "Texas' Ace Gamblers" was published by a Dallas newspaper. Thanks to Doyle, Murphy James was now out of the gate as a poker writer.
Other interviews and other publications in poker, blackjack, and gambling in general, followed. Business articles also came along.
I once asked WSOP winner Jack Straus, "When's the last time you bet the rent money?" He looked at his watch and laughed. "About 15 minutes ago," he said. Jack told me a lot of funny stories. I suspect some of them were true.
I interviewed Amarillo Slim Preston, another WSOP winner, in Lake Tahoe. With most interviews, the players are pressed for time and the journalists talk fast to get it all in.
With Slim, I had to say, "Thanks, Slim, but I gotta go now. Slim, I gotta go. Slim!"
I interviewed David Sklansky and had him critique my (poor) 7 card stud game. It cost me breakfast and a modest consulting fee. He gave me good advice. My game improved a little, but I kept my day job.
The Biggest Game detailed the 1981 World Series. The top prize was $375,000. It went to Stu Ungar. I saw Stuey play, but never met him, never interviewed him. I wish I had. He's gone now.
How things have changed.
The use of the "lipstick camera," pioneered by the World Poker Tour in 2003, has brought intense interest to the game. It seems like poker is on TV 24 hours a day. The poker stars have become media celebrities.
One startling piece of evidence about the growing popularity of the game is the 5600+ players who signed up at $10,000 each for the 2005 World Series of Poker, creating the largest prize pool in history.
"The Biggest Game" gets bigger and bigger.
In 2005, Aussie Joe Hachem, a former chiropractor, took home a top WSOP prize of $7.5 million dollars.
In contrast, Tiger Woods took home $1.26 million for winning the Masters in the same year. Maybe Tiger should drop the driver and pick up poker.
We are also witnessing another interesting aspect of the poker culture: the highly deserved visibility of the philanthropic efforts of the top players. For example:
- Barry Greenstein has donated $3 million dollars (and counting) in tournament winnings to various charities.
- Phil Gordon has raised millions for the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation.
- Jen Harman, who has had two kidney transplants, works on behalf of organ donation organizations.
- Clonie Gowen, whose mother is a survivor, works on behalf of Ovarian Cancer organizations.
- Mike Sexton won a million dollars in a WSOP Tournament of Champions and donated $500,000 of it to five different charities.
And many others have lent their names to tournaments and other special events to raise money for tsunami and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita victims.
Could I conclude anything but this: these are not just good poker players, these are good people.
With thanks to Al Alvarez.